'I'm a putt and a half away from my best'

Rejuvenated Monty aims to make major move on America - and play two more Ryder Cups

If you go down to the woods this week, you're in for a big surprise. You might expect the bear with a sore head to be having a picnic, but come to think of it, no matter how cuddly the spirit of Colin Montgomerie happens to be right now, he would never dream of having a picnic - either metaphorically or otherwise - in the Forest of Arden; not on a golf course, and certainly not at the beginning of a month that could just represent a watershed in a long and, at times, turbulent career.

If you go down to the woods this week, you're in for a big surprise. You might expect the bear with a sore head to be having a picnic, but come to think of it, no matter how cuddly the spirit of Colin Montgomerie happens to be right now, he would never dream of having a picnic - either metaphorically or otherwise - in the Forest of Arden; not on a golf course, and certainly not at the beginning of a month that could just represent a watershed in a long and, at times, turbulent career.

"Four very important weeks," agreed Montgomerie last week during a few days' recuperation after completing the Asian section of the European Tour, before it deigns to start the British leg with the Daily Telegraph Dunlop Masters in the Midlands on Thursday.

"To get into the world's top 50 in time to qualify for next month's US Open, I probably need a couple of top-five finishes in the next three tournaments. But that shouldn't be a problem, it's quite within my reach. It'll just take some decent golf, that's all."

Ah, that fabled Montgomerie "confidence" - or "pigheaded, downright-rude arrogance" as some would have it - that has endeared him to so many Americans and lampoonists alike. He could even be heard last week playing down the return to majesty of one Tiger Woods.

"No, I don't think that the Masters heralded the start of another Woods-dominated era, not at all," he said. "If you looked at his two bogeys down the 17th and 18th in that final round you will have seen that there's a vulnerability there that wasn't there in 2000. And now there's more competition, too. Tiger knows it."

But what Tiger may not know - and probably still wouldn't suspect if ever getting whiff of those words - is that Monty has not felt more upbeat about golf, and indeed life, for a long time. For while Woods was talking about the "validation" that Augusta gave to a swing change, to the "vindication" against all the doubters, Montgomerie was coming to understand another V-word.

Not "victory", for the 41-year-old hasn't won for more than a year, but his new buzz word, "vulnerability", a stranger that fairly barged its way into an assured existence as he swaggered towards 40.

It was the vulnerability caused by his wife's rejection that first forced him to look back to a sport that had given him so much, but even the certainties of a hitherto faithful game could not be counted upon as his world ranking continued its slide from the top 10 to 83rd.

"Yeah, they were dark days, and there were mornings when I woke up and thought, 'Oh God, do I want to do this any more?'," he admitted. "But that was no more than a lingering thought, here one double bogey, gone the next birdie. Because I realised how lucky I was to have this game, to have something to focus on. I have been rejuvenated in those years.

"At 39 my form hit a plateau, even dipped slightly, but thankfully only long enough to do something about it. You know, when you're 83rd in the world you've got to act, because very soon that becomes 150th. It's so much easier to fall than rise."

Monty rose all right, some 30 places to the fringe of the top 50 with six top-10 finishes in his eight tournaments so far this year, although not quite rapidly or spectacularly enough to earn an exemption or, whisper it, an invitation, to The Masters.

"That was even more incentive," he reflected, "having to see it on television. My last round before Augusta was a 60 in Indonesia, for God's sake. So I was sitting there saying to myself, 'Hey, I can actually play this game, I could be competing there'. It was the same at the US Open last year, which was the first major in 52 that I'd missed, and even then, after that, I only just qualified for our Open.

"So yes, I don't want to go through all that again. I intend to be at Pinehurst, even if I have to go through qualifying at Walton Heath the day after the Wales Open and the day before I go to the Palace for my OBE, because I've had enough of missing majors, thank you very much."

But miss Pinehurst he will, "a second-shot golf course I believe I can get into contention on", to put right that missing major, unless he can hoist himself above the line that now represents golf's harshest cut.

"Someone asked me what would be satisfactory for this year and I replied, to get in the top 50. But when have I ever been happy with satisfactory? If I had, I would never have won the European Order of Merit seven times, would I? Top 25 is a realistic target and my golf's certainly good enough to do it, it obviously is.

"I hitched a ride on Ernie's [Els] jet in China recently, and he told me that I was just a putt away from my best form he remembers from 1994 to 2000, which is very encouraging, although, in truth, I think I'm a putt-and-a-half away. I have the leading stroke average on the Tour this year, as well as being first on the greens in regulation stats, and that tells you that if I'm putting as well as everyone else, I should be winning every tournament. That's the difference between me now and me in '97.

"In those days my ex-wife used to walk to the next tee when I had a four-footer, because I never missed. Now, that wouldn't happen, firstly because she's not there any more and secondly because it's all a bit sweaty over the short ones.

"I would love to get back to that feeling of not having to think over those, because if you have 10 thoughts over a putt and one is negative you've as good as missed. But, here's the killer, you only stop thinking when you have the confidence of holing so many times. So how do you get this confidence back? That's the question."

It's one that Montgomerie is determined to answer, in time for North Carolina in June, in time for St Andrews in July, and in time for a couple of competitions in future calendars that may make America wince.

"Listen, I want to play in the next two Ryder Cups. Yes, write that down in capitals, TWO, and underline it," he said, his eyes widening. "But don't underline it too heavily, as I'll only be 45 in 2008 and Jay Haas was 50 when he played.

"Look, I'll only retire when I believe that the best that I can finish out there is 10th. That's not me, you won't see me for dust then. Well, at the moment, the best I can finish out there is first. So I'm hanging around."

It's good to have you back, Monty.

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